In a recent 60 Minutes special on Iran’s attack on US forces at al-Asad base in January 2020, details about Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani’s threats are revealed.
Soleimani was killed by the US alongside Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis on January 3, 2020. A drone was used to kill him. Soleimani was planning attacks on the US within hours or days of when he was killed, US Central Command head Gen. Frank McKenzie told the television news magazine. It was an imminent threat.
McKenzie noted that Soleimani had the blood of many Americans on his hands. “He was close to an indispensable man inside Iran. Where he went, violence and death followed.” He had aided pro-Iranian groups in Iraq to kill more than 600 Americans after 2003. In 2019 and 2020, leading up to the US strike, there had been much tension with Iran and Soleimani.
There were warnings at the time that the killing could spark a war between the US and Iran. Tensions between them had been growing since May 2019. Iran had downed a US drone in June, and pro-Iranian militias fired dozens of rockets at US forces in Iraq. In December, a US contractor was killed.
The US launched airstrikes on the pro-Iranian militias. In response, Muhandis and other pro-Iranian leaders in Iraq, including Hadi al-Amiri, Falah al-Fayyadh and Qais Khazali, sent their members to storm the US Embassy compound. Washington then waited for Soleimani to appear, in a flight at night which arrived on January 3, and killed him.
It was not always clear if there was actionable intelligence about a direct threat from Soleimani at the time.
Iran has turned him into the ultimate martyr. His and Muhandis’s images line streets and posters near the airport today; where he died has become a shrine. Statues of him have been made from Lebanon to Iraq and Iran. Pro-Iranian politicians in Iraq use his death as an excuse for more attacks today to drive the US out of Iraq.
Some critics have wondered whether it the wrong choice for the Trump administration to kill him.
Mckenzie told 60 Minutes about the dire threats Soleimani was planning attacks. “We saw intelligence reports where Qasem Soleimani was moving various attack streams forward – against our forces in Iraq, against our embassy and other bases there.” The attacks would have happened within hours or days, not weeks.
“I never take killing anyone as an easy decision, but I think the risk of not acting in this case outweighed the risks of acting. So, yes, I was good with the decision,” McKenzie said.
Soleimani can be seen on security footage shown on the program. He disembarked from a flight from Damascus and met Muhandis.
US drones were overhead. McKenzie saw Soleimani leave the airplane and saw the entourage pull away, the interviewer noted.
“I said ‘take your shot when you got it,’” McKenzie said. He then had to prepare for the consequences of the action and possible retaliation. “There was no backslapping or cheering.”
McKenzie said the Iranians went into a period of disorganization through the loss of Soleimani, because he was so key to what Iran was doing. An ominous silence followed in Iraq.
“They began to move their ballistic missiles,” the general said.
Intelligence officers then tracked the threats. US soldiers and officers got the “bad news” that Iran was fueling 27 medium-range ballistic missiles to “level” the al-Asad base. McKenzie timed an evacuation of the base. He noted that he didn’t want to move too early and have Iran adjust its plans.
Iran downloaded satellite images of the base. “They would have seen airplanes on the ground and people working.”
He said that Iran expected to destroy a number of US aircraft and to kill US service members.